Brighten a Les Paul: Part II: Aluminum Tailpiece

2011 April 16
by Gray

Before the recent trend for replacing bridge posts, switching to an aluminum tailpiece was for years the best-known mod for bringing some clarity or “air” to a dark Les Paul. Having tackled the surprisingly effective bridge post mod in Part One, this much discussed substitution seemed a natural fit for Part Two. You can also think of it as a review of the Gotoh Lightweight Aluminum Tailpiece, in as much as one can review a bar of metal.

Test Guitar

As before, the test guitar here is my Edwards E-LP-98LTS, modeled after a ’59 Gibson LP. You may be prejudiced against copies, you may not, but almost every Les Paul-style guitar, from the low-end imported facsimile to the $4,000 US-built Gibson Les Paul Custom, comes with an Asian die-cast heavy zinc tailpiece because it saves the manufacturer money. It’s been going on so long, I’m sure some don’t even know these were aluminum on the ’50s originals that are considered perfect.

Aluminum Tailpiece

Being such an established upgrade, there are a lot of choices out there for someone looking to buy a lightweight tailpiece. Faber parts are well received, but I don’t appreciate the misdirection in Faber’s marketing model; customers assume they’re buying German hardware from the strong “FABER — GERMANY” branding, only to learn on receipt that the “PW” stamp of the Ping factory in China has been obscured in the promotional pictures. By most accounts it’s good stuff, and Ping makes hardware for several big names, I just don’t like to be hoodwinked. However, King of the hoodwinkers has to be Gibson, which sells essentially the same part as an “Historic Spec” aluminum tailpiece — a bar of metal, remember — for $233.

Any sufficiently large sampling of opinions overwhelmingly reveals the highest quality (and most historically accurate) piece is felt to come from Pigtail, though at $130 without mounting hardware, while clearly a labor of love by its creator, I’d consider it the last piece of the puzzle for the vintage-correct compulsive rather than a tail for someone who just wants to know how aluminum sounds.

That everyman’s lightweight aluminum tailpiece, I think, would be the widely used Gotoh GE101A, which is what I got. $33 at StewMac.

Fitting

Gotoh zinc (left) and aluminum tailpiecesIt’s an easy transplant, as nothing needs to be drilled, cut, bent, forced, or encouraged with profanity. You take off the strings, the old tail, in this case the Gotoh GE101Z that was stock on the Edwards, slips off, the new one goes on. StewMac supplies either imperial or metric studs as per your order. These are non-magnetic and so presumably nickel-plated brass (ideally they would be steel) but fit the Edwards’ bushings better than the originals (also not steel) which can only help what we’re trying to do here. The flange on the studs — the gap below the head where the tailpiece slots on — is about the same: a hair too big, allowing for a very little bit of lean in the tailpiece. Also included are a pair of bushings, should you need them.

The vintage profile of the Gotoh, with its sloped face, means the strings exit higher than on the modern part, which allows you to bolt it down further than before without the strings hitting the back of the bridge. The deeper those studs go, the more contact we’ve got between body and tail, and the happier the mojo demons are.

It comes in both nickel and chrome. They don’t have an aged option, and it’s going to take a while for the nickel one here to blend in with the vintage smushed hardware on the rest of the guitar. Currently it screams “NEW!” and looks like it was cast from the hull of the spaceship from Flight of the Navigator.

Sound

If you’ll allow me to be completely honest, and you will, I have to say of the five or six alterations with which I’ve experimented in brightening a Les Paul, this had the subtlest result. Before-and-after comparison is difficult because, unlike most of the other mods, the strings must be removed in the process. Often players make the change then run to the forums to report how their guitar is brighter, spankier. Of course it is — you just put new strings on! I let the strings settle in for a week or two before trying to answer the question ‘does my LP sound like it always did?’

Gotoh Lightweight Aluminum Tailpiece installedIn contrast to what I’d imagined, there is a fair bit of vibration traveling through the tailpiece; touch it and strum the open strings. But it’s not as directly involved in transfer back there as the bridge; I think the body is vibrating it, rather than the other way around. You can damp the strings entirely with the edge of your hand where they slope from bridge to tail — some players rest here naturally — but it doesn’t take the top end off your tone. I’ve got to assume then that the tail is just not as critical a point in the chain as the bridge; that what little effect you’re hearing comes from the (literally) massive body resonating with a small aluminum bar versus a small zinc bar, whereas materials at the bridge dictate what gets transferred from string to body and so alter tone more drastically.

“Little effect?” Yes, there is some. I perceive it as a light alteration in attack, a fleeting wisp of extra zing at the beginning of notes, like the effect stainless steel frets have, though less pronounced, and a little more openness thereafter. It’s barely there, many times less apparent than changing bridge posts, less even than swapping picks. And that’s listening acoustically; talk about bringing in an amp, the sweetened limited range of guitar speakers, and some dirt, and it you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

The cleaner your tone, the more apparent the change. Here is a nice mp3 recorded by MyLesPaul forum member markanini, which depicts a more extreme swap: the same short pieces of music are played with an aluminum tailpiece and a brass tailpiece, alternating throughout. Brass is about twice as heavy again as zinc, and has a warmer, thicker tone. If you can’t tell the difference between these two materials, you probably don’t need to worry about the subtler effects of switching from zinc to aluminum.

Brass and Aluminum Tailpieces by markanini

Highlight this white text to discover in what order they were played: 1st each time is the aluminum, 2nd is the brass.

Though minimal in its influence, especially with a bit of gain in the equation, I’ve no notion to remove the TP. It still does something after all, and an aluminum tailpiece is one of those things it’s just nice to know is there. These guitars are meant to have them, and if it weren’t for a number at the foot of a manufacturer’s spreadsheet they still would. I don’t notice much impact on sustain from the lower mass, and saving a few ounces off an LP is never unwelcome.

Still, there are a number of more effective ways to brighten the tone of that dark Les Paul, another of which we’ll get to in Part Three.

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